How Readers Theater Saved the Show – A Discovery in Audience Development

An Experiment in Staged Readings of Plays

American Theatre Hampton, VA

A couple of years ago, the Virginia Playwrights Forum (VPF) in conjunction with the American Theatre in Hampton, VA, had begun a staged reading series for new works.

This was the beginning of an experiment by the theater to hopefully develop plays to move the theater into becoming a producing organization.

We had an okay start with audiences of 10 or 12 for the first couple of readings, both of which had really engaged talkbacks with the audiences.

Our 4th play was supposed to be the staged reading of a musical. But the day before the performance, the playwright (and the performance) was suddenly a no-go, for totally unacceptable reasons.

The co-founder of the VPF (Patti Wray)  and I went into panic mode. We were not about to cancel, having started to build a small audience

The Show Must Go On

angry man

The director of the American Theater was about to throw up his hands.

As the founder and owner of Blue Moon Plays, I had a raft of material and Patti and I combed through it.

There was one standout play script that we thought would work.

Patti was the owner and operator of The Venue on 35th, a small black box cabaret-style theater.

A couple of years before, we had produced an evening of short historical monologues from a longer work by Doris Gwaltney, A Mirror in Time.

The monologues included Dickens’ petulant wife Kate Dickens, Harriet Tubman, Will Shakespeare, and Tsali, a Native-American on The Trail of Tears.

Thank God for Readers Theater!

We quickly called Doris, a dear friend, and asked if we could repeat the performance and could she help get the word out. The director at The American Theater was ready to cancel the show. How can you pull together an evening in the theater overnight?

strong woman we can do it

Now that Doris was in the game, Patti and I were determined to put the evening together.

We got most of the original cast and were able to fill in the rest.

This sudden turnaround was possible only because we were producing Readers Theater with no need for memorizing, blocking (other than spontaneous gestures and dialogues), or props other than articles of clothing to suggest character.

We were scheduled to start at 7 pm and by 6.30.

The director had moved about 15 chairs into the room where we did our readings, spreading them out to take up space.

Patti and I were holding our breath, knowing that we might get a few people because of Doris’ popularity in her hometown of Smithfield, Virginia, only about a 40-minute drive away.

Waiting In The Lobby

We had pushed for this production and hoped we’d get at least 15 attendees to justify our decision.

And then it started to happen….

A party of six came in.
Then eight more.
Then there was a line at the door.

We all scrambled to get more and more chairs until the room was full.

We had an Audience!

I think the town of Smithfield became a ghost town that night. And the discussion afterward with the writer was energized.

We had also organized a table for selling Doris’ book at the door and I had only 20 copies on hand. Fortunately, I had brought order forms.

Readers Theater as Audience Development!

That was the beginning and larger and larger crowds for our staged reading series. And these readings were not held in the center of a large metropolitan area with a theater-hungry population.

The American Theater is in Phoebus, Virginia, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, a small, almost forgotten community with one large historical memory. It was here that the first shipment of slaves landed in the American colonies. But more about that later in another amazing theater memory.

Share Your Experience With Us
Have you had any memorable experiences in your theatrical career? What moments stand out for you? Please share them with us by leaving a comment or by sending an email to havescriptsbluemoon (at) gmail.com. We’d like to share them with others and build audiences and performance groups for traditional and non-traditional theatrical worlds.

You may be interested in these posts and articles to help you choose a play for your own Readers Theatre:

Plays for our times – contemporary plays that deal with issues of today

Play Licensing & Copyright

Plays for Reader’s Theater

A Mirror in Time – monologues of historical characters

Behind Closed Doors – dark monologues & dialogues of historical married couples

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